Friday, June 22, 2012

It Came From The Archives! - Nic Balthazar’s Ben X

Still rooting around in neglected folders. Retooling unfinished pieces for publication here on the blog and briefly glancing at things that have been out there at some point in the past but are no longer available. I’m going to start recycling some of the latter here, otherwise all those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain....Here’s a review that originally appeared on the now-defunct Write on Film (Hi Marie!) back in August 2008.
The debut movie from Belgian filmmaker Nic Balthazar, Ben X unfolds from the perspective of Asperger's sufferer Ben, as he gets through his rigidly-structured daily routine by immersing himself in the lush pixelated landscapes of the MMORPG ArchLord (the one place where he feels truly in control) before the drudgery and discomfort of the real world encroaches on his virtual reality.

Very loosely based on real events (which I can't go into in any great depth without blowing the ending), Ben's story is interspersed with posthumous faux-documentary footage analysing the events of the film by most of the major players, as the narrative creeps little-by-little towards a teased and seemingly-inevitable tragic denouement.

As a diverting thriller, Ben X crackles along and is watchable enough, there are enough neat twists and reversals to keep an audience engaged and Greg Timmermans is excellent as the titular Ben, all barely-repressed tics and twitchy anxious movements as he struggles to function in a world that doesn't quite make sense to him.

But Balthazar seems less interested in what it means to live with Asperger's Syndrome - it just appears to be a plot-motor to tell a story about feckless teens and out-of-control bullying, and Ben's love of ArchLord, whilst interesting in illustrating the way in which he operates differently in distinct and yet not-quite-separate "worlds", teeters dangerously close to a flashy, over-used gimmick when the virtual environment of the MMORPG is overlaid with comparatively dreary Belgian suburbia to show how Ben retreats into his innerlife as a coping mechanism.

The final half-hour obliterates believability beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief, indulging in nonsensical narrative contortions just to get the story to where it wants to be. Nevertheless, there is a kind of emotional logic at play that almost let's Balthazar off the hook and up until that point the movie has built up sufficient viewer goodwill that makes it all slightly easier to forgive.

Balthazar has a striking visual style and an undoubted facility for spinning an entertaining story, and Ben X is certainly ambitious with much to recommend it, but now and then I had the nagging feeling that it was all an elaborate shaggy-dog story masquerading as a gritty teen thriller.

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